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Water and Land Use - Foundations of a Proutist Block Level Plan - Part 1

By Dr Michael Towsey
Prout Institute of Australia

A. Introduction

1. Overview
2. Some History
3. Contemporary Issues
4. Australian Water Issues
5. Key proposals of this document

A. Introduction

1. Overview

In most parts of the world, supplies of fresh drinking water arediminishing. The reasons are not
hard to understand - population increase, pollution of ground and surface waters, over-
exploitationof existing resources, deforestation of catchments and increasing demand for
agricultural purposes. Finding new sources of water and managing demand are problems
exercising water authoritieseverywhere.

The obvious policy issues revolve around water supply, demand and storage. But a long term
water policy requires a holistic approach and this document is based on the premise that water
policy cannot be separated from land management, agricultural practice and of
course economic policy.

We begin with a brief historical review which is necessary in order to appreciate contemporary
water policy issues, both general and Australian. Next we deal with the supply, demand, storage
triangle because here lay the obvious policy issues. Finally we review the all important issues of
land management and water administration.

Some key features of the policy approach advocated in this document are:

1. A decentralised approach to water harvesting and storage, that is, local planning and

2. Water harvesting integrated with land management and planned on a catchment by catchment

3. Water harvesting preferentially (but not exclusively) by the capture and storage of rain water
where it falls.

4. Water is a public resource, a minimum requirement of life and necessary for collective security.
The proposition that water is just an economic commodity, like any other, cannot be supported.

5. Maximum utilisation of water achieved through demand management and scientific research
directed to water efficiencies.

6. Rational distribution of water can be achieved through water trading by licensed public utilities
and cooperatives, with independent statutory bodies having a regulatory role.

2. Some History

Water policy in the 20th century is best understood in the light of European experience in the 19th
century. The story begins early in the 19th century with the introduction of the water closet, first
into fashionable homes, followed by more general adoption. Today we might assume
this to represent a step forward in public hygiene but quite the contrary - it inaugurated a
disaster that killed hundreds of thousands over the coming century. The water closets discharged
into sewers which, in turn, discharged into rivers. Private water companies drew water from those
same rivers and returned it to the taps and pumps of the general populace. European rivers were
sewers and not enjoyed by those of delicate disposition. "I counted two and seventy stenches - all
well defined - and several stinks", wrote Samuel Coleridge of a boating trip on the Rhine where it
passes through the romantic city of Cologne. A sitting of the Houses of Parliament in London,
1848, had to be adjourned because of the appalling stench bubbling up from the Thames [Black,

As early as 1828, a distinguished physician, William Lambe, warned the public that drinking water
known to contain "the decayed and decaying remains of myriads of animals and vegetables, in
every stage of decomposition and putrefaction" might be harmful to health.
Yet despite repeated epidemics of cholera and typhoid (a cholera epidemic in London, 1848,
claimed 3000 lives in one week alone), it took 100 years of heated controversy before common
sense prevailed and drinking water was kept separate from sewage. Why did it take so long?

The first difficulty confronting water and sanitation experts of the period was lack of an
appropriate theory of disease. Bacteria had not yet been discovered - cholera and
typhoid were believed to be caused by a miasma, 'something in the air'. Without an adequate
germ theory to stimulate investigation, it was difficult to make progress. An important discovery
was made in 1854 when all the cases of cholera in a Soho epidemic could be traced to a
particular water pump. This discovery forever linked public health to water quality and was an
important turning point in the history of public sanitation. But controversy persisted because there
was still no agreement on the causative agent linking the two.

Box A.1.
The top five contributors to increasing longevity in the 20th century

1. Clean water
2. Sewage treatment and separation of sewage from drinking water
3. Use of soap for personal hygiene
4. Mass vaccination
5. Public housing - ensuring dry, disease free shelter for great majority of the population.

Indeed the controversy increased because of a second difficulty. The first water analysts, whose
job it was to determine water quality, were inorganic chemists. (The science of
organic chemistry was not yet recognized.) And their primary interest was the degree of
enrichment of water by health giving salts believed to cure dyspepsia, rheumatism and other
disorders. Money could be made from the right kind of mineral water and hence Bath and
Harrogate became fashionable spas frequented by the rich.

As towns competed with one another to promote the therapeutic value of their
springs, water quality experts felt the pressure to provide favourable analyses. From which it was
but a short step for private water companies in London and other cities to promote the quality of
their water over that of their competitors. It was a battle of the experts, with water quality
chemists opposed to sanitary engineers. Here is a sample of 19th century debate [as quoted in
Hamlin 1990]:

Sanitary engineer: ". a stream which receives daily the evacuations of a million human beings .
with all the filth and refuse of various offensive manufacturers . cannot require to be analysed,
except by a lunatic, to determine whether it ought to be pumped up as a beverage for the
inhabitants of the Metropolis of the British Empire."
Response of water chemist: To drink tap water containing microscopic animalculae is "no more
harmful than eating fish."

It was a case of reformers invoking science to sanction change and conservatives invoking
science to prevent it, a situation which is disturbingly reminiscent of contemporary
debates about environmental pollution and water quality. This situation deserves
additional comment precisely because it is so relevant.

Scientists like to claim that they arrive at theories through observation

and experimentation. Experience precedes theory. In practice the process is more cyclical, with
experimentation stimulated by pre-existing theory to build new theory. If the cycle is
broken for want of a satisfactory theory, investigation stagnates. Furthermore, scientific
knowledge is not absolute - it is always subject to review. Scientists are happy with this state of

Indeed they see it as a strength and as a necessary protection against dogma. But when science
is required to inform public policy, its open-endedness becomes a weakness which powerful
people exploit to serve their own interests. Thus we observe, even today, that scientific
uncertainties about, for example, pesticide
toxicity levels or climate change, are deliberately exploited to frustrate the political decision
making process [Gore 2007, Hamilton 2007]. While a solution in these cases would be
an appeal to common sense or adherence to the pre-cautionary principle, in practice
politics today is no better at framing public policy based on science than it was in the 19th
century. And we will look back in

3. Contemporary Issues

The realisation that drinking water quality was an important determinant of

public health had a profound effect on European social consciousness, one that is difficult to
appreciate in the 21st century. But with regard to water policy that impact persisted pretty much
throughout the 20th century. The provision of plentiful, safe and palatable water for all became
a primary duty of the state. Water and sewage companies were nationalised because private
companies were resistant to implementing changes that served the public interest but did not
advantage themselves. For the liberal conscience, clean water became a matter of human rights.
For the conservative, it was a matter of state security because epidemics sweeping through
squalid city slums incited public unrest. And if further justification was required, archaeologists
were uncovering evidence that great civilisations of the past, such as Mesopotania and Akkadia,
had fallen for wont of good water management [Fagan 2004].

Another hallmark of 20th century water policy was water as an engineered

product. To obtain water in abundance required the building of large dams far from cities. The
water had then to be piped to treatment plants where complex quality control ensured that the
water delivered to houses was of a satisfactory standard. Indeed the greater the engineering
prowess of a nation's water infrastructure, the greater its industrial might. The Hoover Dam (USA)
and the Snowy River Scheme (Australia) were very much products of that mind set. It has been
described as the epoch of the hydraulic society, the apex of modernism [Allan 2001]. Of particular
note is that the provision of water in the hydraulic society had almost nothing to do with land
management, ecology and the dynamics of biological systems.

From an economic point of view, 20th century water policy was dominated by the so-called supply
side paradigm. Water resources planning, at least in developed countries, attempted to ensure
that consumers did not suffer a restriction of supply. Attempts to restrain water use played a role
only in times of drought and could be accomplished only if the public perceived a
crisis [Lawson, 2002].
In retrospect it was inevitable that such a system would break. Population increase and growing
per capita consumption increased the demand for water, while pollution of surface and ground
waters made it more difficult to maintain supply. The privileging of water supply within the
hydraulic society encouraged both excess quantity and excess quality for routine uses such as
toilet flushing and garden watering. In short, the supply side paradigm proved unsustainable.

And so we come to the 21st century, where the emphasis has shifted from supply to demand
management. While governments continue with efforts to increase water supply, they are
confronted by the political costs of building large dams and recycling sewage and the energy
costs of desalination. Thus the new approach is to reduce demand and to make much more
efficient use of what water is available.

The emergence of economic rationalism in the late 20th Century has also had an impact on water
policy. Why, the rationalists ask, should water be different from any other commodity? The excess
demand for water can simply be corrected by increasing its price. Besides, the price of water in
the hydraulic society does not reflect its true economic cost. If water were privatised as it was in
Britain in 1986, the increased price would provide incentives for entrepreneurs to find new
methods to produce more water. Water freely traded in an open market would solve the mismatch
of supply and demand. Perhaps not surprisingly the Business Council of Australia issued a
report in September 2006 titled "Water Under Pressure: Australia's man-made water scarcity and
how to fix it." Its main argument, well publicised in the media [Adams 2006b] was that water
shortages are due to economic mismanagement and could be solved by private investment to
build water infrastructure. The then Federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, welcomed
the report by saying:

"The big urban water utilities are very profitable businesses. If those
businesses are allowed to invest and do what they should do, which is to
deliver the water the cities need, then we will not have - on a long-term
basis at any rate - water restrictions in our major cities." [Adams 2006b].

Democrat Senator Bartlett was more circumspect. While admitting that the primary water issue is
not about scarcity but about management, he cautioned against private ownership of water
utilitiesbecause of the likelihood of profiteering:

"Water pricing and water markets desperately need to be reviewed; however, we should be wary
about private ownership of water. Water availability is in the national interest and we should be
concerned about profiteering to the detriment of water users or the environment. We need to
separate ownership from pricing." [as quoted in Adams 2006b]

Water is one of the last essential commodities in Australia not yet privatised. It has therefore
become a focal point for competing visions about the future. For example:

. Water privately owned and traded in free markets to achieve efficient distribution versus
water as a public commodity managed in the interests of the community.

. Water as a highly engineered product for a modern hydraulic society versus water cycled
through ecosystems, passed from one community to another, with purity maintained by wetlands
and managed aquifers.

. Public health as a product of mass inoculations and antibiotics versus public health as a
product of a clean environment from which healthy food and pure water are harvested.

. Farms as agri-business, financed by managed investment schemes offering high rates of return
to wealthy, city-based corporate investors versus farmers as custodians of the land and water,
producers of high quality food.
It turns out that visions about water management impinge on visions about the future of our

4. Australian Water Issues

Australia is a large continent. It is geologically old, it is mostly flat and it lies in the sub-tropics
where temperatures are high but rainfall uncertain. These features conspire to produce a
continent with a unique relationship to water. Except for the northern and eastern
fringes, much of the continent is arid and afflicted with salt. Perhaps because of this, 80% of
the Australian population is urban and almost all of it is coastal. And yet, surprisingly given the
obvious aridity of the continent, Australians have a higher per capita water use than any other
country in the world.

Commenting on Australia's profligate use of water, Dr. Rick Evans told the ABC science
programme, Catalyst [Demasi 2007]:

"In a broad sense we have been spoilt. We have been used to using far more water than we need
to use. We have been used to seeing it as an infinite resource for which we can just turn on a tap,
or pump water out of a bore and it's just there. In reality that is not the way the rest of the world
operates. We need to have a culture change."

One is also reminded that Australians are amongst the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse
gases and second only to the USA in per capita production of landfill waste. It is clear that
Australia urgently requires policy initiatives to encourage maximum utilisation of scarce

The classical European water cycle, which informs most hydrology text books,
does not apply to much of Australia. Instead of mountain fed rivers that flow to the sea,
Australia has shallow catchments most of which flow in-land across vast flood plains. Compared
to other continents, Australia's big rivers hardly rate. The combined flow of all Australia's
major rivers is about one one hundredth that of the Mississippi alone. The annual flow of
Australia's greatest river, the Murray, equates to just one day in the life of the Amazon.

In her seminal publications, Mary White (described by Fullerton [2001] as

Australia's own Rachel Carson) argues that the early Europeans failed to understand the
Australian landscape and the movement of water through it. Despite its dry rugged appearance,
the continent is ecologically fragile and it was perhaps inevitable that the imposition of European-
style agriculture would wreak havoc [White 2000 and see Box A.2.]. For White, salt pans in
agricultural land are a harbinger of impending disaster, just as the decimation of insects by DDT
was for Rachel Carson. Of great concern is that there is a long lag time between cause and effect
in large scale ecological systems and the continent is only just starting to show the effects of 200
years of abuse.

Today about 70% of water consumption in Australia is used for agriculture. Furthermore farmers
holding free-hold title are responsible for some 70% of the land. Consequently most of the difficult
water policy decisions in Australia are directly concerned with land use and farming practice. The
following is a list of just a few of the issues we face. There are no simple answers - these are
deep moral and social questions:

(i) Much of Australia's agricultural land is in fact marginal for farming. Difficult decisions must be
made about what farming is sustainable in a given catchment. These decisions require balancing
long term costs against short term gain.

(ii) Unwise irrigation practices have caused environmental devastation in Australia. Difficult
decisions must be made about allocations to irrigation. This will involve trade-offs
between economic and environmental costs.

(iii) Water has multiple uses - irrigation, electricity, drinking supply and environmental flows. How
to apportion scarce water will involve difficult decisions. The power company, SnowyHydro, was
recently attacked for buying electricity from coal-fired
power stations [ABC 2007b]. Its own hydro-electricity would of course come without a
carbon cost. The company argued that it was preserving dwindling water supplies for town
consumption and irrigation.

(iv) Farmers care for 70% and indigenous people care for 16% of Australia's land. If we are
to reverse the destruction of wetlands, recover biodiversity, improve water quality and plant more
trees for bio-sequestration, who is going to bear the costs? On-going civil disobedience
campaigns by farmers (for example, see reports of deliberate illegal land clearing, 29th May
2007) highlight this question.

(v) Australia's iconic tree, the eucalyptus, does not mix well with traditional agriculture. It has deep
tap roots which lower the water table. Indeed it might be argued that the
eucalyptus contributes to the aridity of the Australian continent. Elsewhere in the world, notably
India and the Middle East, the eucalyptus has been ruthlessly removed from
cultivated areas. Difficult decisions will need to be made as to how much we alter Australia's
natural landscapes to satisfy human food and fibre requirements.

(vi) Indigenous land management involves burning, partly to aid hunting and partly to encourage
growth of edible herbaceous and tuberous plants. This practice, which is common to savannah
communities around the world, is sustainable but maintains the landscape ecosystem in a state of
arrested development. In particular it reduces tree cover almost 100 fold - trees which might
otherwise build soil, sequester carbon or produce food, to name just a few. Choices will have to
be made between legitimate land management practices.

BOX A.2.
Australia is not in the northern hemisphere

Australia is a major producer of wheat, wool, mutton, beef and cotton. The country has made a lot
of money growing food and fibre. But for how much longer? Australia's current
agricultural practices, in particular its profligate use of water and reckless land clearing, are
simply not sustainable. European farming practices have provided a short term bounty, but the
creeping cancer of dryland salinity and soil erosion are a warning that the bounty will indeed
be short-term.

Why is so much of the Australian landscape so fragile for agriculture? Cotton has been grown in
the USA for two hundred years, in some places for three hundred, without
insurmountable problems. Cotton has been grown in Australia for around 50 years and already
some would argue the crop should not be grown in the country. Why the difference?

It is partly about rainfall reliability. The cotton belt in the USA enjoys a subtropical climate with
abundant rain, well distributed through the year. This is ideal for cotton and the crop can be grown
in Georgia and Mississippi without irrigation. Rainfall in Australia is less reliable,
making irrigation essential. But irrigation in an arid climate with mobile salt requires more care
and self-restraint than has been exercised to date.

However, it is not only about water. More importantly, according to [Fullerton 2001, p86] US soils
"are much deeper and richer, and able to buffer the abuse." Northern hemisphere soils
were formed comparatively recently. The repeated advance and retreat of glaciers during the
last ice ages pulverized rock, creating deep fertile soils. By contrast Australian soils are
ancient and depleted. The last time glaciers performed their rejuvenating function was 300
million years ago. Dry, desiccating winds and water have long since eroded the surface leaving
a flat landscape with shallow soils and flood prone.

Australian ecosystems have adapted well to unpredictable rain. After a downpour, the deserts
burst into life, producing a cacophony of plants and animals, all anxious to complete their life
cycles before the return of arid conditions. But agriculture requires certainty and
the attempt to create certainty with dams, weirs and irrigation, has destroyed a surprisingly fragile

5. Key concepts and proposals

1. Just as 20th century water policy focused on hydraulic engineering, so the 21st century
approach will be about ecosystem management and biotechnology. It will be about working
with the water cycle and using ecological and biological processes rather than usurping them. We
cannot live outside ecosystem dynamics.

2. Water policy requires a holistic or integral approach. That is, it must simultaneously address
global warming, drought, deforestation, land management and agriculture. In Australia, it must
also accommodate our unusual geography.

3. Except for the peripheral fringes of the far north, water is the limiting factor for human
settlement and agriculture in Australia. Consequently water deserves to occupy a central
place in community and economic planning. Water harvesting must be integrated with land
management and planned on a catchment by catchment basis.

4. Harvesting and storing rain water where it falls is the preferred method to obtain water. This
approach lends itself to decentralised planning and management.

5. Deforestation contributes to climate change. Apart from producing food, Australian farmers
should also have the responsibility for reafforestation and bio-sequestration. Agro-forestry is an
ideal way to combine these two with food production.

6. Water is an essential requirement of life. Consequently, it should be managed as a public

resource for the welfare of all. This will require appropriate cooperation of all levels of government
and a regulatory role performed by independent statutory bodies.

7. Maximum utilisation of water can be achieved through demand management and scientific

8. Rational distribution of water can be achieved through a mix of both planned allocation and
water markets. Water traders would be licensed public utilities and cooperatives with appropriate
regulation to ensure that community interest is served.

9. Water management has a cultural component. Encouraging respect for the Earth and its
resources will be a central feature of a Neohumanist education.